Monday, November 20, 2017
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PHONEY WARS – NEW ZEALAND SOCIETY IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR” by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (with Hugh Eldred-Grigg) (Otago University Press, $NZ 49:95)
Over a decade ago, when I was studying theology, one lecturer told us how we could become immortal. It had nothing to do with religion or a possible afterlife. It had to do with scholarship. The trick was this: you write an article for a scholarly journal in which you make an outrageous or downright silly case, with which you know every other scholar will disagree. You can then be sure that every time another scholar writes on the same topic, he or she will have to spend some time refuting your hypothesis, even if only in footnotes. So your name will appear in thousands of articles and books. Scholarly immortality!
I wonder if Stevan Eldred-Grigg had the same objective in mind in writing Phoney Wars? Eldred-Grigg’s latest book (co-authored with Hugh Eldred-Grigg) presents much factual and documentary detail, but it is more polemic than history and it argues its case stridently. As Eldred-Grigg surely knows, many (most?) historians will disgree with his case. It is that it would have been better for New Zealand never to have joined the Allies in fighting the Second World War. Just as stridently, Eldred-Grigg argued in his earlier book The Great Wrong War (reviewed on this blog) that New Zealand was wrong to be involved in the First World War. As I said in my review of The Great Wrong War, it is relatively easy to be negative about the First World War because, to most people, it appears to be just the clash of greedy, rival empires. But, for most people, the Allies in the Second World War had the admirable aim of destroying Nazism and Japanese militarism, and it is far more difficult to denigrate or satirise their role. Like it or not, the Second World War is still (as I said in another posting) popularly seen as The One True Good War.
How does Eldred-Grigg make his case? In his introduction, he asserts: “Ultimately there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to involve itself in the war. As a small state ocupying a position of zero strategic significance, its contribution to a war waged between great powers was negligible.” (p.12)
As he is winding up the book, he asks rhetorically “Why had the dominion been fighting?” and declares: “The Labour government never made anything other than vague statements about why. Cabinet chose to declare war on several states, and the declaration of war was given the rubber stamp by the National Party. Yet no group of politicians or state officials ever sat down to draw up a list of goals to be won for the dominion by going into the struggle. New Zealand had no ‘war aims’ to use the jargon of diplomacy, other than the very woolly one of helping the motherland and other states fight Japan, Italy and Germany. And why had the motherland been fighting? A lot of sonorous phrases were spoken, but in many ways the British government went to war in order to follow its old policy of stopping any one state from being overwhelmingly strong in Europe.” (pp.328-329)
The tone of his argument rarely changes in the 300-plus pages between these two statements. Eldred-Grigg never concedes that defeating an expansionist totalitarian state might have been a good aim in itself. Even more damagingly, he rarely acknowledges that (alien though it may be to us later generations) majority popular New Zealand sentiment at that time did see this country as an extension of Britain, and saw nothing “woolly” in helping a “motherland”.
No, it isn’t how we think in the early 21st century, but it was a persuasive motive in 1939.
After his introduction, Eldred-Grigg (Chapter 1) gives a once–over-lightly of New Zealand’s foreign and domestic policies in the 1930s, presenting the country as ruled by conservative interests with the dominant media being conservative newspapers, despite the popularity of the Labour government’s social democratic welfare policies. He makes much of the evils of empires and colonialism, especially as New Zealand was involved in ruling Pacific islands that would have preferred to be independent. This sets him up for a long argument in Chapter 5 that the Allies were massively hypocritical to claim to be defending “freedom” and “democracy” when they themselves (the British, French, Dutch and Americans) kept control – often by force – of large empires.
Moving on to the first phase of the war, September 1939 to June 1940, (Chapter 2) Eldred-Grigg argues that it was not to New Zealand’s economic advantage to go to war. We could, he claims, have found trading partners other than war-beset Britain. Britain was itself a repressive country and we were in effect supporting their repressive empire. (He lingers over the unpopularity of Commonwealth troops – including New Zealanders – with Egytian nationalists.) And then there were all those dreadful things the government did in the way of wartime censorship and cracking down on pacifists.
When the war really gets going in Europe, June 1940 to December 1941, (Chapter 3), Eldred-Grigg says that it was simply not our war but, as his chapter title puts it, “A War Far Away”, and therefore of no concern to us. After some debates and misgivings over the matter, the Labour government and most unions agreed to conscription. Much of what Eldred-Grigg says in this chapter about the inconveniences of rationing, the attempts to conscript wealth as well as men, and the opposition National Party’s failure to persuade the Labour government to form a waritme coalition, are the standard fare in history books concerning this period.
Not standard fare, however, is his chapter (Chapter 4) dealing with the Pacific war, December 1941 to December 1942. Eldred-Grigg strains hard to present a tolerant and forbearing Japanese government goaded into war by American and British trade practices and embargoes. When Japan signed on to an alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, “Wellington made the mistake… of thinking that the alliance meant Japan was getting ready to go to war against the British Commonwealth.” (p.181) Goodness! How naïve of Wellington! Eldred-Grigg keeps reminding us that the Guomindang government of China was not a democracy (and therefore, presumably, we should feel less sympathy for the Chinese when they came under Japanese attack); and he ridicules the New Zealand government for now having to rely on United States naval assstance as opposed to the British naval assistance they thought they could rely on. New Zealand fears of Japanese invasion were, in Eldred-Grigg’s telling, absurd because Japan was so far away. Besides, weren’t New Zealanders (and other Allies) nasty racists in the demeaning images of Japanese whicch they used in wartime propaganda?
In his Introduction, Eldred-Grigg has said “The war, contrary to the propaganda of the time and to subsequent memory, did not unite New Zealanders: it divided them.” (p.13) In Chapter 5 and the following chapter, he is determined to “prove” it. He presents all the privations of war (rationing, blackouts, digging air-raid shelters) as intolerable impositions, and he plays up the many complaints that New Zealanders made. I would interpret this as the functioning of a healthy, open democracy, which still had much room for free speech despite censorship; but Eldred-Grigg interprets it as signs of incipient class warfare. As for the “invasion” of American troops, Eldred-Grigg focuses on disorder, sexual misconduct, the “Battle of Manners Street” and other brawls between Kiwis and Americans, having decided that any evidence of more affable relationships between allies is not worth reporting.
Comes Chapter 5, dealing with the last two years of the war, (January 1943 to September 1945) and Eldred-Grigg claims this was another “phoney war” as it was by now only a matter of time before the Axis powers were defeated. New Zealand civilians were only playing at supporting the war. There was much discontent. This time, he concentrates on the reluctance of most soldiers to return to active service after they had been given three months furlough at home; and the limited ways in which the government made use of women in the workforce.
Finally, in his summing-up (Chapter 6), Eldred-Grigg basically damns the Allies for using nuclear weapons to end the war; says the outcome of the war was simply to create the Cold War between the USA and USSR; damns Britain and France and the Netherlands – now assisted by the USA – for trying to hang on to their colonial empires when they had said they were fighting for democracy; and again asserts that New Zealand would have better remained neutral.
As I was at pains to say in my opening paragraphs, there is much factual and documentary detail in this book, but there is also no doubt that it is very partial information and suborned to the purposes of polemic.
I will simply walk through a number of examples of Eldred-Grigg’s very loaded arguments. Consider this suggestion: “New Zealand could have followed the example of Ireland and proclaimed neutrality. A neutral policy would have had strong advantages. The country would have been saved from much of the waste, misery and loss of war. Also the policy could have been changed when the tides of war went one way or the other, making neutrality a more or less prudent course to steer.” (p.66) There is little point in comparing New Zealand with Ireland in this matter. In 1939, fewer than 20 years had passed since British troops were engaged in trying to put down Ireland’s fight for independence. The mood and disposition of the Irish people were very different from the mood and disposition of New Zealanders – even New Zealanders of Irish descent, despite Eldred-Grigg’s claims to the contrary. (Incidentally, Eldred-Grigg frequently errs by referring to Ireland as a “republic” in the Second World War. Although it asserted its independence in a new constitution of 1937, it did not officially style itself a Republic until 1949.)
Then there are many lapses into improbable speculation. Eldred-Grigg says New Zealand’s Labour government was partly coerced into declaring war by fear of a conservative backlash. He claims: “The Labour government, by choosing neutrality, would have had to work hard to cope with protests and lobbying by conservatives within New Zealand. The National Party might perhaps have sponsored a political coup, backed openly by the governor-general and secretly by London. Motor cavalcades might have rumbled through city streets bearing troops – young middle-class men willing to do the job of putting down the working class as their fathers or grandfathers had done so thoroughly in the days of ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ ”. (p.66) The “would have” and “might haves” in the above statement mark this as speculative fantasy.
As in much polemic concerning the (Western European and American) Allies, there is much tacit whitewashing of the role of the Soviet Union. From Winston Churchill down, nobody has ever doubted that the bulk of Hitler’s armies were destroyed on the Eastern Front in battles that carried off more millions of Soviet lives than the combined death rolls of all other Allies combined. But this doesn’t excuse such statements (with regard to the initial invasion of Poland) as “Moscow… stood aside after signing a non-aggression pact with Berlin.” (p.61) Not true. In accordance with the pact (really an alliance, since Uncle Joe continued to supply Adolf with war material for the next two years), Germany and Russia divided Poland between them and held joint victory parades. Later, when he gets to Operation Barbarossa (p.156), Eldred-Grigg manages to say nothing about the enfeeblement of the Red Army due to Stalin’s massive purges, and hence the initial catastrophic defeats the Soviets suffered. With regard to New Zealand, there is little mention of the CPNZ’s sudden conversion from being anti-war, and seeing the war as a mere tussle between “bourgeois democracies”, to being a militantly pro-war party once the USSR was attacked.
When he is busy belittling the idea that, at the declaration of war in 1939, democracies were pitted against the Nazi dictatorship, Eldred-Grigg remarks: “A … glaring weakness in the theory was that the target was only one dictatorship. One-party police states were thick on the ground in Europe. Why was war not declared on Portugal or Latvia or Hungary?” (p.74) But this is not a rhetorical question, even if the author thinks it is. Portugal, Latvia and Hungary (which did later join the Axis) were not, in 1939, following an aggressive expansionist war policy. Germany was.
Eldred-Grigg notes that the New Zealand press played up the courage and resilience of Londoners under the Blitz. He then goes on: “Nobody told the households of the dominion that German civilians were also coping pluckily. Air raids after several months were killing far more civilians in Germany than in Britain, yet the news media in the dominion stayed eerily silent about their suffering.” (p.122) Later he reminds us that by the end of the war, for every one British citizen killed in German air raids, 12 German civilians were killed in Allied air raids. (p.232) I do not doubt his statistics here and, at this distance from the Second World War, it is perfectly right to account carefully for all civilian deaths. Nevertheless, Eldred-Grigg is himself “eerily silent” about such matters as Nazi behaviour towards civilian populations in the countries they occupied. Like his presentation of Germany as a peaceful, progressive nation in The Great Wrong War, this is a case of over-compensation for the received Hollywood image of a clear-cut morally-uncomplicated war.
On a number of occasions, I find Eldred-Grigg indulging in the easy retrospective game of being wise-after-the-event. Take the following glib summing up of the wartime situation in New Zealand: “Austerity clothing and rationing helped spread thinning resources more fairly, but in many ways the government was sabotaging the economy. Digging air-raid shelters was a waste of scarce labour; so was ‘directing’ workers into ‘essential’ industry, driving citizens away from their workaday tasks into the Emergency Precautions Scheme and drilling men in the Home Guard. Blackouts hindered production and trade. Rationing and manpowering caused economic inefficiency. The costs of ‘total war’ were heavy. The costs were unnecessary, too, because the enemy was not on its way.” (pp.205-206)
The last sentence here takes no account of what were reasonable fears and precautions at the time. Over eighty years later, it is easy for us to make generalisations about an enemy power’s strengths and intentions because we have many years of researched and documented sources behind us. But these were unavailable at the time. A tone of smugness creeps in when inverted commas are placed around the word “essential”, as if we would be more acute at judging what were and were not essential things in the same circumstances.
Then there is this fatuous advice given to ghosts: “New Zealand should have been doing its best to diversify from rather than to back up its trade with Britain. Alternative markets were not easy to find, admittedly, but neither the government nor exporters did a lot to look for those markets, even though they saw that waging war was wrecking the British economy… Imperial loyalty led many people to say that the dominion should stick with Britain in spite of its new poverty. Other allies, though, were seeking their own advantage. Why not New Zealand?” (p.334) Note the throwaway clause “alternative markets were not easy to find, admittedly.” (And if that were so, how much more difficult would they be to find in the middle of a war?) Note also the implicit cynicism – this country is getting battered so, for our own advantage only, let’s look for another to trade with.
Speaking of cynicism, note the unsubtle tranference of guilt in the following statement: “Killing, sickening or maiming the workforce is an odd way to safeguard an economy, yet that was what happened when the dominion declared war on the Axis. A total of 12,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen died during the fighting. New Zealand killed a higher percentage of its troops than any other country in the British Commonwealth. Patriots took pride in that death rate, thinking it evidence of bravery, but the tally might instead be seen as proof that the policy of going to war had gone badly wrong.” (p.338) Yes, folks, that devious Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser deliberately lined up 12,000 New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen and shot them. The deaths were entirely their fault.
In a famous critique of the way Edward Gibbon dealt dismissively with Christian martyrs in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Cardinal John Henry Newman said “You cannot argue with a sneer.” His point was a good one. Even when the facts of a history book are verifiable, it is the author’s tone of voice that conveys much of a book’s meaning. Eldred-Grigg’s (very selective use of) facts and contemporary documents is often informative, but equally often the tone of voice is pure sneer.
I am no particular admirer of British monarchy, and would be quite happy if New Zealand were a republic, but I know Eldred-Grigg is deep into sneer mode when he refers to Edward VIII only as “Edward Windsor, figurehead king of New Zealand” (p.48) or when he sniffs “American claims to democracy – loud to the point of braying – were in some ways hollow.” (p.52) Then there is his habit of minimising the importance of any military campaign in which New Zealanders were involved, as in “The key war, for the [Japanese] governing groups, was the war in Asia. The ‘Pacific War’, as the Americans called it, was always a sideshow for Tokyo.” (p.216)
The North African and Italian campaigns are also referred to as “sideshows”. We are agreed that by far the greatest pummelling the Wehrmacht took was administered by the Red Army. Even so, one would have to be very ignorant indeed of the strategy of the Second World War not to understand why the Pacific War, North Africa and Italy were important.
“All military effort by the dominion was more or less meaningless,” pontificates Eldred-Grigg “… the Axis would have lost the war anyway, whatever the dominion did or did not do.” (pp.363-364) Such a statement begs more questions than I could number. Like Stevan Eldred-Grigg, I was born long after the Second World War, and I have no desire to sound like some boozy old RSA member, exaggerating his wartime feats. But in this sort of statement, Eldred-Grigg knows he is waving a red rag at many old bulls. Is it in moments like this that he is bidding for immortality and hoping that a barrage of angry rejoinders will allow his publishers to say that this unbalanced book is “controversial”?
You have now heard enough of this sort of thing from me, so I will refrain from deconstructing Eldred-Grigg’s use of the word “phoney” in both his title and in two chapter headings. But as Eldred-Grigg indulges in counter-factual history (i.e. speculating “what if?”) in his closing chapter, I think I should be allowed to do the same.
Eldred-Grigg asks why New Zealand couldn’t have had a “Holyoakean” reaction to the outbreak of the Second World War. He means, why couldn’t Savage and Fraser have reacted the way Keith Holyoake did to the Vietnam War? Faced with the demands of a powerful ally (the USA) for New Zealand to get involved in Vietnam, Holyoake managed cleverly to ingratiate himself with the ally while sending only a very small volunteer force overseas and never contemplating conscription. Ignoring the fact that the circumstances of the two wars were very different, and that public opinion in New Zealand had moved on and was very different in the 1960s from what it had been in the 1940s, Eldred-Grigg thinks he has a point to make.
Eldred-Grigg belittles the Atlantic Charter in which Roosevelt and Churchill declared their war aims to be the promotion of peace and democracy. Says Eldred-Grigg: “While many – perhaps even most – citizens thought the charter noble, it was only words.” (p.167) He then goes on to condemn the duplicity of Britain, France and others for attempting to hold on to colonial empires by force once the Second World War was over. Britain disposed of India promptly, but fought in Kenya and Malaya. France fought losing wars in Algeria and Indo-China. Both were involved in the foolish 1956 adventure in Egypt. The Dutch tried, and failed, to hold on to the “Dutch East Indies” (Indonesia). So Eldred-Grigg’s point is valid, right?
Not really. He has stopped his historical clock too soon. In fewer than 20 years after the Second World War, mass opinion in the West had turned against the idea of holding on to colonial empires; and governments were no longer using the rhetoric of empire that they had still used in the 1940s.
Okay, so here’s my counter-factual.
Let’s say that statements like the Atlantic Charter were never made. Let’s say that (like their enemies) these two allies had spurned support for democracy. How much would public opinion not have been stirred, in later years, to move away from support for imperialism? This is at least as good a “what if?” as Eldred-Grigg’s. By which I mean it’s at least as bad a one.